Okay, fine, why not? Let’s actually look at a Christmas-themed game for once. ‘Tis the season, and all that. I think this might be the first time I’ve ever covered a Christmas game here at VGJunk. You see, the thing is I just don’t like Christmas all that much. Not in a bah-humbug-y way - I’m not against the holidays or anything, I'm down wih the message of peace and goodwill and I’m not the type to bang on about how it’s all become too commercialised, maaan. It just doesn’t really do it for me, you know. I’ve got Halloween for fun holiday times. But Christmas time is here, and maybe playing a seasonally-appropriate game will increase my levels of festive cheer. If I could get up to “holly jolly” from my current level of “trying to plan around reduced public transport services,” it’d be nice – and if I managed to get such a boost from this game, it’d be a bonafide Christmas miracle. It’s Free Spirit Software’s 1990 Amiga deck-the-halls-em-up Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus!

There’s Jolly Old Saint Nick now, sharing his sleigh with the titular Barney Bear. At the front of the sleigh are the traditional reindeer and at the back of the sleigh is some strange, malformed creature with twiglet legs. I think it’s supposed to be a dog. I’m sure it’s meant to be sitting on top of Santa’s sack, but because they’re the same colour you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a dog with a hugely distended stomach. You shouldn’t have swallowed that canoe, Fido.

Of course, I’ve met Barney Bear before. A few months ago I wrote about Barney Bear Goes to Space, another Free Spirit title created by the same two people and also released in 1990. In that game, Barney went on a field trip to NASA, fell asleep on a conveyor belt and woke up aboard a space shuttle. It was half digital story book and half low-effort activity centre, so I’ve got a pretty good idea how Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus is going to play out.

It’s Christmas Eve, and all through the house not a creature is stirring except for Barney Bear and his dog Skippy. Not my words, folks, but the words of the robotic narrator whose dulcet tones will relay to us the story of Barney Bear, the jammiest little bear-cub in the world. Going to space and meeting Santa in the same year? What’s he got planned for the new year, finding a golden ticket and appearing in Barney and the Chocolate Factory?
Anyway, the narrator has the same synthesised voice as in Barney Bear Goes to Space. I described it there as like Stephen Hawking reading the CBeebies bedtime story, and that’s a description that holds true for Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus.

Santa has arrived. His unfocussed eyes and swaying, unbalanced gait suggest that a lot of kids have left a glass of brandy out for Santa this year. He tells Barney that he needs help at the North Pole, and asks if the young bear wants to come with him to see his toy factory. Santa, my man, it’s already late at night on Christmas Eve. If you’re desperate enough to turn to a bear-child for help, the situation has probably gotten away from you already.

And so off they fly, away to the North Pole – but not before the game reminds you that Barney Bear must ask his parents permission before travelling to Santa’s Grotto. Sadly, you don’t actually see this happen. Barney’s on his way though, so his parents must have been cool with it. The kid’s already been to outer space, he can clearly look after himself.

Before long, Barney and Skippy arrive at Santa’s Arctic fortress / toy factory. I was expecting an architectural style inspired by cosy cottages and gingerbread houses, not the opening shot of Blade Runner, but that’s what we’ve got here. I particularly like the huge flaming pylons in the background. That must be how they burn off the excess menthol from the Peppermint Mines. Then, just when I was getting my head around the weirdly fascistic look of Santa’s compound, the robot narrator informed me that the toy factory “is bigger than your whole city,” a statement that must have made player in Tokyo or Mexico City look out of their window and say “are you sure about that, sunbeam?”

So now we’re in Santa’s Workshop, and that’s where the storybook portion of the game ends. It feels like there was somehow even less to it than the story part of Barney Bear Goes to Space, to the point that I was, like, did I miss something? But no, I didn’t. Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus is both the title of the game and a complete and thorough description of the story.
Before I move on to the minigames, I must point out that while it’s easy to mock children’s entertainment for sometimes looking unintentionally weird or creepy – very easy, which is why I do it – when I reached this screen the narrator said “this is going to be lots of fun” and I swear to god Santa turns, looks into the “camera” and winks. I’m beginning to regret accompanying an old man to meet the slave workforce he keeps inside a city-sized frozen prison.
Okay then, minigames! If you click on certain background elements on this screen you can do an activity. Let’s start with the toy machine, shall we?

It’s a body-parts-swapping activity, of the kind I’m sure you’ve seen before. Combine the head, body and legs of various wacky characters to create the latest hot new toy that all the kids are clamouring for. You’ve got a few different sets to work with, including all your festive favourites – Santa Claus, a robot, a snowman, the Nativity Frog…

Whaddya mean, you’ve never heard of the Nativity Frog? The frog whose croaks led Mary and Joseph to the manger in which they lay the newbon Messiah? His flesh and shorts are the entire reason that red and green are colours of Christmas! You people need to study your Bibles more closely.

Of course, the real function of these body-swapping games is to come up with the most grotesque abomination that you can. I’ve plumped for this terrifying creation. The soulless, psychotic mind of a clown, the immortal body of a robot and the round lower half of a snowman that allows this remorseless killing machine to chase you over any terrain. Well, it’s not going to be any worse that the last couple of Terminator films, right?

There’s an odd-one-out game, which feels insultingly easy even for a game aimed at very young children. It’s obvious which one you need to pick in this line-up. Barney Bear isn’t nearly cool enough to pull off those sunglasses, and when you consider he’s been to space and met Father Christmas that’s a real burn on Barney.

There are a couple of letter games to play as well. One is a simple anagram solving challenge where you must unscramble words like “owl” and “zebra” - you know, Christmas words – and it’s so dull I couldn’t bring myself to even show you a screenshot. It looks almost identical to the minigame pictured above, where you have to find the missing letter to complete the alphabetical sequence. Beige squares, textured metal floors… I feel like I’m belabouring the point a touch but Free Spirit seem to have forgotten that they were supposed to be making a Christmas themed game. Could the letters not have been iced onto biscuits in front of a snowy backdrop or something? The “factory” part of Santa’s Unfathomably Vast Toy Factory is taking far too much of the focus, if you ask me. Although, I did learn that those textured metal floors are called “diamond plate” so I’ve got something out of the experience.

You can also enjoy a rousing game of “Find the Elf.” This screenshot’s from after I found the Elf, by the way. Even the Barney Bear games don’t make it that easy for you. What happens is that the narrator says, for example, that the Elf is in the red present or the smallest present, so you click on the appropriate gift and the elf pops out. Then the Elf says “you found me hehehehe” in the same robotic voice as the narrator, except it's pitched up a bit. This has the effect of making it sound fifty percent more elfin but roughly one thousand percent creepier. It’s the high-pitched mechanical laugh, it sounds like a disturbed robot child pulling the wings off fly-droids.

Probably the most enjoyable of the activities (a weak field to be the front-runner in, admittedly) is the colouring book. A selection of black-and-white line drawings for you to fill in, plus some very basic drawing tools so you can add your own flourishes as you see fit. It might be the best thing in this game, but it’s still a bad digital colouring book. It works in exactly the same way as the one in Barney Bear Goes to Space, and my description of that game’s colouring book applies here: it’s slow, awkward, fiddly to fill in the smaller areas and the drawing tools seem to create shapes that lay on a completely different “layer” to the rest of the drawing, making them annoying to work with. Still, you can colour in some fairly nice festive pictures, like I have done in the screenshot above. I hope you appreciate the effort I went to in ensuring that the stripes of the candy canes are all filled in correctly. If only Christmas spirit was measured by the amount of f-bombs you dropped while trying to colour a finicky candy cane, this game would be more festive than the Queen doing her speech in a novelty jumper while half-cut on Bailey’s.

The colouring book is the part of Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus that you can spend the most time with before the grinding weight of tedium forces you to stop, which is damning with faint praise indeed. But hey, at least you’ve got some nice Christmas-y scenes to look at, like Santa laughing at Barney as though our little bear friend has just told Santa he wants world peace for Christmas.

How about this toy bear? Or as Barney would call it, "a doll," I guess? Little could be more festive than baubles, gift-wrapped presents and teddy bears, even if the teddy bear does have the blank stare of someone who’s just walked in on their parents going at it underneath the mistletoe.

“Mother and father like to wrestle but it makes them sweaty so they do it with no clothes on.”

Your artistic masterpieces don’t even have to be related to Christmas! I made this horrible thing by accident. Okay, the nose wasn’t an accident, but I was a well-behaved child who was far too decent / cowardly to draw graffiti penises so I’m making up for it now. Erm, merry Christmas, I guess. As an apology, if you’re making a videogame and you want to use this thing as an enemy design, go right ahead. It could use its jug ears to fly at you, that could be pretty terrifying, right?

And that’s your lot. A short story and some rather pathetic minigames comprise ninety-nine percent of Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus. The other one percent? Well, on the main toy factory screen you can click certain things in the background and they play a sound file. The clock chimes, the buttons click and whistle and the elves in the background say “happy new year” although it probably won’t be happy for them because they’ll be out of a job. Barney Bear Goes to Space didn’t include much content either but it had more to it than this game – at least you could learn some (occasionally incorrect) space facts. Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus has some half-decent graphics and an enjoyably robotic voice-over but that’s about all it has – and it didn’t even make me feel more Christmas-y, which is all I really wanted from it. Okay, so it made me want to eat candy canes but that doesn’t take much doing. In short, I feel no more or less of the Christmas spirit now than I did before I played Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus, but it did remind me to buy candy canes. Please clap as I unfurl the world’s smallest “mission accomplished” banner.

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